Updated: May 23
Have you ever wished you could travel back in time and be present for a momentous occasion in history? Today I’m going to give you step by step instructions about how to host a “Last Night on the Titanic” dinner party, complete with themed activity stations all around the ship (also known as your house), modern versions of the actual menu the night the ship went down, music, dancing, a visit from the Captain, and an unforgettable live action ending.
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Now, I do want to acknowledge that the sinking of the Titanic was clearly a tragic event, in which over 1500 people lost their lives. April 14th, 1912 was obviously a very sad day in history. However, replicating historic events and inviting guests to participate in them actually allows people to viscerally understand what life was like in other eras and places… like what it really meant to be divided into classes, or to be separated from your spouse because only women and children were allowed in the lifeboats, or to watch the last lifeboat launch without you, or to be trapped on the third class decks! So this kind of event, in addition to celebrating Golden Age splendor also provides a unique opportunity for your guests to expand their comprehension and awareness of a different era, and potentially increase their levels of tolerance and compassion for people who didn’t have the advantages that they do. It’s sort of educational time travel!
So today we’re going to talk about the four major elements necessary to plan a glamorous, captivating, immersive, Last Night on the Titanic party: 1) Worldbuilding (how you’re going to turn your location into a turn of the century luxury liner), 2) your menu (customized for modern palates), 3) the activities that are going to elevate this party from a simple dinner to an immersive experience, and 4) your optional costuming.
How are we going to turn your house or apartment, common area, dorm room (whatever you’re working with), into a luxury liner sailing on April 14, 1912? With the power of suggestion. You’ve probably seen a simple theater set that suggests a location with just a few key set pieces. This is what we’re aiming for. We’re not going to turn your space into a ship, we’re just going to add a few carefully chosen items to suggest that your guests are on a ship.
Start by taking a look around your house for items you already have that can help you suggest a vintage nautical theme.
You’re looking for things that make you think of ships, like nautical flags, captain’s hat, porthole mirror, life buoy, and even life jackets. Remember to keep as these vintage as you can, so skip the country-chic lighthouse and cutesy anchor ornaments. Remember, we’re going back in time.
Look for some old travel decor, like suitcases, binoculars, maybe an old passport (which you can actually print out)
Think about some vintage Edwardian era decor like a top hat, and old wine bottles, maybe some gloves and pearls or even an old camera.
You can even frame some photos of the ship & the passengers like Jack and Rose & even the ocean.
Now make a pile of all the decor you found, see what’s missing, and think about borrowing things to fill in the gaps. You only want to spend money on just a few items for this party that make you happy and that you might use again.
You’re going to create your own ship by turning each room that you have into different places on the boat. (Or if you’re working with one large room, you’ll be setting up different corners as different areas of the ship). For example, your front hall can be the boarding area, the space next to your coat closet can be the luggage hall, the room you’ll be eating in can be the first class dining hall.
Don’t forget the third class lounge, where all the guests come to really have fun, the observation deck, morse code room, and a big sign that says to the lifeboats. Make up some signs to print out that use the White Star Line logo, that you can easily find on the internet, then set up your decor in little still lives on tables or in corners. It’s amazing how a little pile of carefully curated things can really suggest another time and place!
So, the centerpiece of the party is obviously your dining table setup. Even if you don’t have a formal dining room, see if you can move some furniture around and set up a folding table or two to serve as your big banquet table, so you can put together a really gorgeous tablescape that gives the feeling of a first class dining experience. Dig up your candlesticks, and charger plates, and fabric napkins. Make each place setting look like those diagrams of formal tables that explain where to put your multiple glasses and silverware. Put everything you have on that table! Then dim the lights and light those candles. Turn on some soft classical music for that old-fashioned feel.
And let me just tell you about the most fun part of the Titanic dinner party we once gave at the Storyteller’s Cottage. We were lucky enough to know a fantastic couple (Marcie & Gordon Swift) who played the harp and the fiddle, and they came and sat very seriously in the front hall and played live while they were wearing their life jackets! It made every single guest burst out laughing when they saw them.
So one more point about building your world. You can create a wide range of printables with just a computer and a free graphic design program like PicMonkey or Canva. You can make invitations that look like boarding passes and placecards that look like ID cards for the actual guests on the ship, and of course you can make a beautiful formal menu - just give yourself enough time to create and print and cut everything out well before the party.
Because there were three different “classes” of passengers on the Titanic, there were actually three different menus served on that last night. The first class passengers enjoyed an elaborate 10-course meal in the French style that included filet mignon, roast duckling, pate, oysters and four kinds of desserts. The second class passengers ate less but still quite a bit -- four kinds of meat and fish, plus appetizers, four side dishes, 3 desserts plus fruit and cheese …
... while the poor third class passengers literally ate gruel, biscuits and cheese that night (they did have a nicer luncheon, but their last meal was actually gruel).
So there’s a lot of source material to choose from when you build your own menu. Your creativity comes in as you decide how precisely you’d like to follow those original menus.
There’s a fantastic book by Veronica Hinke called “Last Night on the Titanic” that includes actual recipes that you can follow to recreate some of the fancier menu items like Oysters a` la Russe and Chicken and Wild Mushroom Vol-au-Vents if you’re up for a culinary challenge.
Or you might prefer to choose one or two items from each course and make them in a more modern way. For example, the first class menu included Salmon with Mousseline Sauce as an hors d'oeuvre. You can whip up a modern salmon spread very quickly by whizzing together some smoked salmon and cream cheese in a food processor and serving it with dill and capers on Melba toast crackers (which happened to be all the rage at the turn of the century).
It’s up to you whether you include elements from all three classes of menus, but don’t skip the actual printed menu to set at each guest’s plate. If you had nothing else at your party but these menus and a life buoy, your guests would still be falling over each other to compliment you on your fantastic worldbuilding skills.
Depending on how much space you have and how your rooms are arranged, you might like to spread out your food into several different rooms so it encourages your guests to move around and mingle.
You could set up champagne glasses or sparkling cider on a tray right near the front door that you can hand to the guests as they arrive (or they can just pick it up, or you could potentially even get a friend to dress up as Titanic serving staff and hand out the glasses). You can then display your hors d'oeuvres in a different room -- ideally one that has space for the guests to stand and chat with each other as the party gets started.
One sort of tongue-in-cheek item you can add here is a big punch bowl with an iceberg floating in it. You can use the corner of a ziplock bag to freeze water or even juice into an iceberg shape. Just suspend the bag over a tall cup (see our video about this), and set a few random items underneath it so it doesn’t turn out completely smooth. Crinkle up the sides, fill it with water and freeze -- and just FYI, this much water takes a very long time to freeze, so do this the day before your party. Then just unmold and float the iceberg in your punch!
After your guests have enjoyed their hors d'oeuvres for about 30 minutes to an hour, it will be time for your seated dinner, and it’s the seating that’s important because that will be the most authentic part of the night. If you don’t have room at your normal table for the number of guests that you have, you can break the group up and have them eat at small tables in separate rooms, which gives you another fun chance to label the spaces as the First Class, or Second Class dining halls, and you can even make it sort of a lottery to see who gets to eat where by drawing tickets out of a bowl or something cute like that.
Now it’s your choice whether you’ll be the person who’s serving this meal then removing the dishes afterward, or if you’d rather ask someone else to play that role. That will depend on how many separate courses you’re planning to serve (will you have soup, salad, a sorbet course, then the main meal and the side dishes), and how many tables full of guests you end up having. I’m sure you realize that if you have twenty guests in three different rooms and you try to serve them four separate courses all by yourself, you will not eat, nor will you be able to converse with your guests. So think about how you want to handle that and who can help you.
If you do decide to have some friends or family acting as Titanic staff, coach them a little beforehand and ask them to make some casual remarks about the ship as they’re serving like “did you feel that vibration?” “I think I felt the ship shake a little!” or “Ah No worries, the Titanic is unsinkable!”
The third part of our plan is all about the charming themed activities that you’ll be offering in addition to serving this fantastic dinner. Let me tell you, from years of experience, it’s the extra activities that not only make your party fun, but make sure that all your guests feel as though they’ve traveled to another time and place.
You may be hesitant to add “reindeer games” to a formal party, but I’m not talking about goofy stuff like pin the tail on the donkey. It’s actually essential to building an immersive atmosphere to give your guests something themed to do, because people can be shy about going all-in on playing a character, and let’s face it, most people don’t know what to DO at a party when they don’t know everyone there.
Years ago people were trained to make conversation at social gatherings and if a host saw someone standing alone they knew just how to swoop in and guide them smoothly over to just the right other guest and effortlessly give both them a topic to chat about that they’d both love, then glide off to beam at some other guests.
These days, not only are those skills not ingrained in us, but they’re almost extinct. This is a time travel party. You don’t want everyone talking about football or politics because they can’t think of anything else to say. So to keep your group feeling like and acting like they’re spending the night in the Edwardian era, you’ll be providing them with a series of immersive activities in different rooms of the house, or different corners of your larger space, that they can participate in at their leisure, and then you’ll pull everyone together for some larger group activities before and after dinner.
And again, this is not a “ok everyone now we’re going to play the hokey pokey!” kind of night. Instead you’ll be setting up activities in stations that people can wander into, and choose to do or not do on their own. And remember, encouraging guests to move around keeps the party lively and prevents shy people from grabbing a drink and a chair and never moving again. When people who don’t know each other find themselves working together on an activity, they bond (as do people who do already do know each other). And the more your guests laugh, the stronger their memory of having a fantastic time will be when they think back to the party.
So here’s what you’ll do:
When you greet your guests at the door or in your front hall, you’ll be checking them in for sailing. Ask to see their boarding passes, invite them to take a tour of the ship and point out the signage, let them know that there will be a castaway toast when all the passengers have arrived, and encourage them to look around for the special onboard activities. Take their coats, hand them a drink and set them loose.
The activities that they will find as they wander around before dinner can include:
A photo booth, where they can take pictures of themselves in a beautiful vintage setting
A Trivia challenge, where they can find questions rolled up in little bottles and quiz each other
A Morse code challenge, where they can try to decode a message, and compete against each other if they like
And a Night Sky viewing where they’ll ostensibly be looking through binoculars to see the scenery but will actually see an iceberg.
And remember, in addition to these four things, they can also visit the hors d'oeuvre display and your cute punch bowl, and potentially the bar. If you’re mixing cocktails you can give them names like “The SOS” and “The Last Lifeboat” (if your guests like that kind of mischievous humor).
Once everyone has arrived and had a chance to circulate to all the activities, it’s time for you to pull everyone back together.
Get their attention and announce that the ship is ready to set sail and pass everyone a drink, then lead an enthusiastic castaway toast - making sure to mention how unsinkable the Titanic is!
See if you can get someone to dress up as the ship’s captain, Edward Smith, and introduce him to the guests. He can welcome everyone to the largest sailing vessel in the world, and go over some of the most impressive features of the ship, like the fancy new radiotelegraph transmitter, and the up to the minute watertight compartments (you can check Wikipedia to find all these details). You’ll be playing a little fast and loose with the actual history here, since the Titanic was actually at sea for four days before they hit the iceberg, but no one will mind.
Now at that time in history, there would have been some entertainment. One really fun way for you to offer some historically accurate entertainment would be to have a poetry recitation, by someone you’ve spoken to ahead of time who knows they’re the entertainment. While you have everyone gathered together in the lounge or the hallway, introduce this famous or non-famous figure and have them dramatically read a poem with an adventure theme or a travel theme. One great potential poem from that era is Song of the Open Road by Walt Whitman, that was written in 1865. There are a lot of options – just use the internet, it’s there for you.
Next you’ll have your dinner, which will be fantastic, but what happens after dinner? You don’t want the fun to end. Consider dancing! Now this isn’t going to be your normal dance club type dancing – no DJ, no flashing lights. This is going to be an old-fashioned ball! If you have space, it’s a really fun way to make people feel like they’ve gone back in time. You can use recorded classical or waltz type music and you can actually offer dance lessons in the style of turn of the century dancing. Another option is to usher everyone into the third class lounge just like Jack and Rose did in the movie, where they’ll have a real, down and dirty good time with faster music and more informal kinds of dancing. You can go with Irish jig type music, or anything you think your guests will enjoy.
Now if you have some friends who lean toward the dramatic, see if you can get them to play characters at the party. Wouldn't it be so much fun if the Unsinkable Molly Brown arrived to circulate through the party and warn people about a vague impending disaster, and engage people in conversation about the merits of the safety system on the ship, or even draw attention to the lack of lifeboats in the area. And you can let this person improvise, or you can give them a script, and this is going to be a small element of the night – it’s not a show or a performance. It’s a small extra that’s woven through the rest of the party. And just for those of you who aren’t aware, the Unsinkable Molly Brown was an actual passenger on the Titanic, and she was instrumental in saving a lot of lives as the ship went down.
Which brings me to the last immersive element of this party – the sinking. Now, whether or not you use this depends on the personality of your guests, but we did do this at the party that we held at the Storyteller’s Cottage and it was actually really fun.
We had Molly Brown come running through the dining room as everyone was finishing their desserts and start raising the alarm that the ship was sinking. And she put a lot of energy into dramatizing those last moments where it was imperative for everyone to get up and leave.
So, what we expected was that everyone would stand up and leave and she would usher them to the back door, and we would hand them a favor bag that was labeled Survivor Kit, more on that later, and they would realize that the party was finished and they would go. But that’s not what happened. They thought it was a joke! So, they did get up, they wandered toward the back, but then they turned around and they came back again :) Which was fine, but this is a great lesson for you as you plan your party, that things aren’t necessarily going to go completely to plan no matter how organized you are. But think about whether that’s something that you want to incorporate into your party, because the sinking of the Titanic is the most important part of the night, so whether you decide you want to replicate it, or just mention it, it’s the most obvious element to use to wrap everything up for the evening.
The Survival Kit that I mentioned was a little bag, and inside it were some lifesavers candies, some little floaties like a child would wear swimming, a whistle just like Rose used when she was stuck on that raft, and the bag itself had a little sticker on it that said Survival Kit and also said Share the Door.
Now the last part of your party is costuming, and it’s optional. Immersive events often include dress up clothes and it is really fun to dress up in a different era, but not everyone has the appropriate clothing, especially for an era like this, the Edwardian era – who has an Edwardian dress laying around, or a top hat, or a coat with tails?
So based on who your guests are, you can decide whether you’d like to ask them to dress up to come to the party, and how you’d like to ask them to dress up. You can ask them to just dress nicely, you can specify that you’d like them to wear dresses and cocktail attire … you can go one step further and ask them if they would wear tuxes and long gowns, or you can invite them to wear as historically accurate costumes as they can manage. Now the question comes into play, are you leaning toward the movie version of the Titanic and asking guests to dress up like Jack and Rose, or will you be leaning toward the historic version of the Titanic and asking people to choose a character to dress up as someone who was actually on the ship at that time. Either way, you’re in for a fun night.
So now you have all the elements you need to throw a fantastic, immersive, Last Night on the Titanic party. Have fun, and let me know in the comments how your party went!
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